Robert James Waller's passionate tales enchanted readers

Cinema still from the 1995 film The Bridges Of Madison County starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
Cinema still from the 1995 film The Bridges Of Madison County starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. PHOTO: HANDOUT

WASHINGTON • Robert James Waller, whose melodramatic novel The Bridges Of Madison County, about the love affair of a roaming photographer and a lonely Iowa farm wife, became a runaway bestseller in the 1990s and formed the basis for a 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, died last Friday at his home in Fredericksburg, Texas. He was 77.

His friend Scott Cawelti told Associated Press that the cause was multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.

Waller had written a few essays, but had never attempted fiction before The Bridges Of Madison County. He was 52 and on leave from his job as a professor of business management when he wrote the book in a feverish two-week period.

"It all just came pouring out," he told New York Daily News. "Practically wrote itself. I just typed it. Almost couldn't keep up with the words. I don't know where they came from."

When the novel was published in 1992, expectations were modest. Yet Waller's 171-page novel found an eager audience through word-ofmouth recommendations and ended up spending 164 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including nearly a full year at No. 1.

Bridges became a publishing phenomenon, selling nearly six million copies in the United States in two years. Tens of millions of copies are in print worldwide.

The novel's plot concerns a photographer, Robert Kincaid, who has come to Madison County, Iowa, in 1965 to photograph its picturesque covered bridges for National Geographic magazine. While there, he asks directions of an Italy-born farm wife named Francesca Johnson and they embark on a passionate four-day romance while her family is away.

The initial reviews were lukewarm at best. A Chicago Sun-Times critic called it "syrupy, platitudinous pap" and others lampooned the book's overwrought emotionalism and wooden prose.

Kincaid, considerate enough to clean the tub after taking a bath, is a Camel-smoking vegetarian smitten by Francesca and her unfulfilled longings. "I am the highway and a peregrine," he says, "and all the sails that ever went to sea." Francesca responds in kind, saying: "You're so powerful, it's frightening."

The quality of the prose did not put off readers. Instead, they were enraptured by the romantic tale of two adults sharing, if only for a short time, a life-changing passion.

Excerpts of Bridges appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine and television host Oprah Winfrey invited Waller to discuss Bridges on her show, calling it her "favourite book of the year".

Lanky and silver-haired, Waller looked the part of the handsome wayfaring stranger, going so far as to say: "Of course I'm Robert Kincaid. Just look at me."

The 1995 film, directed by Eastwood, who also starred as Kincaid, was filmed on location in Iowa and pulled in US$182 million at the box office. The screenwriters tossed out much of Waller's portentous prose, opting to let the cinematography and the chiselled faces of Eastwood and Streep carry the storyline.

"Forget the book," read a headline in the Houston Chronicle. "See the movie."

Bridges fans flocked to southern Iowa to see the places visited by Waller's imagined characters. Hundreds of weddings were performed under the roofs of Madison County's covered bridges.

Waller's second novel, Slow Waltz In Cedar Bend, about another grown-up affair, this time on a college campus, replaced Bridges as No. 1 on the bestseller lists in 1993.

He also released an album of songs tied to Bridges and signed so many autographs that he reportedly developed carpal tunnel syndrome.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'Robert James Waller's passionate tales enchanted readers'. Print Edition | Subscribe